President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy, William Ruto, will Friday fly into a political storm in Uasin Gishu. Faced with stiff competition from independent candidate Kiprop Bundotich alias Buzeki, whom he controversially defeated in the Jubilee Party primaries, Governor Jackson Mandago has resorted to belligerent campaigns, threatening to rally his supporters to vote for the opposition presidential candidate in retaliation for what he claims is the Jubilee leadership’s hand in his rival’s bid.
With the Uasin Gishu governor’s contest increasingly taking on a dangerous tribal slide, which undermines Jubilee’s unity pillar, the unease in North Rift opens another headache for the ruling coalition that is already battling a rebellion in the South Rift fostered by Bomet Governor Isaac Ruto, who has aligned himself with opposition leader Raila Odinga’s NASA. Mr Mandago and his allies have also demanded that, just like in the Nakuru governor’s race, where governor Kinuthia Mbugua has been asked to step down as an independent candidate for Jubilee’s Lee Kinyanjui, the Jubilee leaders should pressure Mr Buzeki, too, to withdraw his candidature.
It is against this backdrop that Uhuru’s and Ruto’s visit to the region is laden with political tension. Uhuru will be in Trans Nzoia today before proceeding to Eldoret tomorrow, where he will preside over a passing-out parade at Moi Barracks before holding campaign rallies until Saturday. Mandago and Buzeki are preparing for a rematch in the August 8 elections but their campaigns have increasingly taken an ethnic angle that threatens Jubilee unity in the region perceived to be one of its strongholds. The governor’s threat to mobilise his supporters to vote against Jubilee if one of the communities in the region votes for Buzeki on August 8 has caused ripples in the cosmopolitan county. Flanked by his allies – Kapseret MP Oscar Sudi and his Nandi Hills counterpart Alfred Keter – the governor last Friday warned that if a certain community voted for Buzeki, they would rally their supporters to vote against Jubilee. “If this trend (of supporting Buzeki) continues we will tell our supporters to vote for us and make individual decisions on other seats. It is not a must for us to be in government,” Mandago said during a rally in Eldoret town. “We want to know why one community voted for one person to the last man. We want the presidency to tell us if we are together as Jubilee or not because if they do not vote for me we are not together,” he added. Mr Sudi said they would monitor the voting trends in the initial stages and give directions to their supporters on how to vote for the presidency.
Mandago’s rivals have accused him of stoking ethnic hatred to gain political support as the country heads to the General Election. In a region that was one of the worst hit by the 2007-08 post-election violence in which more than 1,000 people lost their lives and thousands were displaced, Mandago’s utterances have elicited sharp reactions. But the governor is no stranger to controversy. After the botched Jubilee nomination exercise on April 21, Kalenjin elders criticised him and Mr Keter for leading hundreds of youth to perform a cultural ritual in the streets of Eldoret town to protest against alleged plans to rig the nominations. Video clips of the street ritual, which the elders said amounted to a war cry, went viral on social media, leading to intense debate.
The leaders made fiery speeches during the impromptu public rally along the busy Oginga Odinga Street, accusing some Jubilee leaders of trying to rig in Buzeki. Mandago and the two MPs have denied promoting an ethnic agenda and instead accused some powerful individuals in the party of supporting and funding the campaigns of independent candidates contesting against them.
They want Uhuru and Ruto to draw a clear line between supporting Jubilee candidates and entertaining independent candidates. Ruto on Tuesday night met Elgeyo Marakwet, Uasin Gishu, and Nandi county Jubilee candidates. Mandago, his Elgeyo Marakwet counterpart Alex Tolgos, Nandi Senator Stephen Sang, and other Jubilee candidates from the region attended the meeting in Eldoret. The private meeting was ostensibly to end simmering political tensions over the threat posed by independent candidates ahead of the President’s visit. Buzeki enjoys significant support from voters with roots in central Kenya and Mandago’s team wants the President to rally that bloc to support his re-election. “We will ask the President to come here and speak in the language that they understand so that they can rally behind the Jubilee candidates,” said Keter. With the two leading candidates coming from the Kalenjin community – Mandago is a Nandi while Buzeki is a Keiyo – voters from other ethnic blocs could provide the critical swing vote to winning the seat. The governor is viewed by his supporters as independent and aggressive, but critics label him as intolerant to other ethnic groups, which has earned him friends and foes in equal measure. Last year he led some leaders from the region in storming Moi University to oppose the appointment of Laban Ayiro as the acting vice chancellor instead of Isaac Kosgey. ALSO READ: Mr President, it is not their fault they won’t see what you’ve done The National Cohesion and Integrity Commission (NCIC) later questioned the governor, who denied that he was opposed to Ayiro’s appointment on ethnic grounds. In 2015 more than 100 street children were rounded up by county government officers and ‘deported’ to Busia and Bungoma counties, causing an uproar. Buzeki, who maintains that he is in the race to the end, has accused the governor and some MPs of engaging in tribal politics and termed their remarks as ‘desperate and primitive’. He has called on NCIC to reprimand the leaders for intimidating voters. “As senior members of the society we should conduct ourselves according to the standards expected of us. These remarks were against the electoral code of conduct,” he said. Buzeki, who has been battling claims that he is a Ruto project, said the remarks were meant to exert pressure on the presidency to coerce him to withdraw from the race and support Mandago.